Vernacular architecture of Assam

by Nabajit Deka | 2018 | 96,996 words

This study deals with the architecture of Assam (Northeastern India, Easter Himalayas), with special reference to Brahmaputra Valley. The Vernacular Architecture of Assam enjoys a variety of richness in tradition, made possible by the numerous communities and traditional cultures....

Deori Vernacular Architecture

The Deori is a distinctive tribal community of Assam who identify themselves as jimochaya (Deori:2007). The Deoris are believed to be the descendent of the great Tai race (Deori:2016:54) and belong to great Bodo race, which have migrated from the South East Asia crossing the Shyam and Mukang Assam. There are three main divisions (khels) of Deoris, viz. Dibangiya, Tengapaniya, and Barganya. There is reference of another division called Patar-ganya who are said to have mixed up with the Tiwas or with the rest three. They are presently mainly scattered in the districts of Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat, and Sonitpur.

Different scholars often referred the Deoris as a branch of the Chutiyas or as the priestly class of the Chutiyas (Goswsami:2015). Before the advent of the Ahoms, the Chutiyas had their own kingdom on the bank of the Kundil River. The Chutiyas later on divided into primary groups of Hindu Chutiya, Ahom Chutiya, and Deori Chutiya along with minor social groups of Borahi Chutiya., Moran Chutiya, Mattak Chutiya, Miri Chutiya etc. (Saikia:1974).

However, the Deoris themselves claim as a separate tribe, different from the Chutiyas. The folklore materials back such an assumption that the Deori is a different tribe with a distinctive cultural heritage. It is believed that the Deoris had a separate principality known as Khuntawan and their first legendary king was Khunta Raja. The present day Lohit district is said to be the area of the then Khuntawan. Again, it is believed that the Deoris settled in the area of Khuntawan by fifth C. AD. And within the territory of the Khuntawan, the Hindu-Chutiya people later established the Sadiya principality at around 1189 (Deori:2016:59).

Of the groups, the Dibongiyas have their own language and maintaining the traditional culture largely while rest two, the Barygayans and the Tengapaniyas, have adopted the Assamese language and acculturated to a certain extent. All three groups display certain speciality in respect to their traditional culture. In respect to housing culture, the Deoris are traditionally stilt dweller. The changing situation has brought certain changes in their housing culture and gradually shifting to earth-fast architecture. But the cultural implication and association of vernacular architecture is ensuring the continuity of the tradition, at least in certain part of the architecture if not the entire. Thus, even after shifting to ground, the kitchen is at least constructed on platform. However, the Dibongiyas are still continuing the traditional stilt variety to a great extent.

1) Architecture:

The Deoris traditionally live in long and straight houses constructed on stilt. Traditionally, a single house accommodates 10 / 12 families and further extended when necessity arise (Deori:2016). Therefore, they use word jakhala (ladder) in numerical sense also, to refer to a family or a household. Thus, the number of ladder in a village indicates the number of households in the village. The houses in a village are similar in look, layout, and design. Apart from the residential house, a Deori household possess other architectures such as granary and cowshed. However, in constructing the houses, it is extremely taken care of that the roofs line of the main house and that of the granary of the household does not overlap or cross the line of the roof of the other house. The Deoris do not fence the compound of their houses, believing it to be a great offence to their Gods. Even the borderline of their cultivated land also must be straight. The particular offence is known as ‘hemeju’ (Goswsami:2015).

Deuri House layoutThe Deoris construct their houses on the platform of 4 to 6 feet height, using locally available materials such as cane, bamboo, wood, and thatch. The area below the platform is used for different purposes such as to house domesticated animal, keep agricultural implements, to park the bullock cart or sometime to establish the loom. A bamboo or wooden ladder (echugur), with odd number of steps, is attached to climb to the platform. However, a traditional Deori house possesses more than one, ideally three ladders. The main ladder of the house is attached to the left half of the facade, facing the corridor (chagoo) inside. The other two are secondary ladders, which are respectively attached to the scullery and secondary open platform (micha-dachu) of the house. A bamboo support (andicha / hatamari) is attached with the ladder to hold while climbing up.

Traditionally, the Deori houses are straight but gradually L-shape houses are coming up. The houses in a village are similar in pattern and style but vary in size that faces the road. As the Deori mostly live in the riverine and flood prone areas, their architecture is fit to cope and withstand the climatic condition of the local areas. The Deori houses externally resemble to the houses of the Mising community. However, there are subtle but conspicuous differences between the houses of two communities. The primary difference is that a Deori house is internally partitioned into compartments while the Mising houses do not have any such partitions. Secondly, the Deori houses do not possesses the backdoor as prevalent among the Mising.

The houses ideally expected to face the eastern cardinal direction to facilitate viewing of God Sun in the morning and because their revered “Deoshal’ remains to the eastern side of the village. It is customary to check the suitability of the plot prior to construction. Like the other tribal groups, they check the suitability of the plot through a traditional system of keeping rice in the proposed site. The Deoris first embed the southeast corner post of the house with reverence after offering betel nut and a coin in the pit. They also sacrifice a chicken or an egg on the occasion. Though not a traditional practice, the wrapping of a red cloth on the top of the post is prevalent nowadays.

In the construction and orientation, [the following maxim is maintained]:

uttare garu, dakhine charu |
pube dhan, pachime man ||
” (Deuri:2014:105)

(Meaning: “The cowshed to the north, cooking place to the south while granary to the east and respected and honourable to the west”).

Therefore, the cowshed of a Deoris homestead remains to the north of the main house while the granary is constructed to the east. Simultaneously, the kitchen is established to the south of the house while sleeping room of the most respected person of the house remains to the western side. The Dibangiyas and Bargayas construct their houses in east-west direction while the Tengapanias constructs in the north-south direction. The main entrance door is kept slightly towards south of the central point of the eastern side (Saikia:1974).

The gable front of the house contains an open porch known as the ‘micha / michang’ or ‘dogsu-misso’ from where a door is fitted to enter the house. In the micha, the guests are received and entertained, and unmarried youths sleep at night. It is a custom to hang items such as horn, skin of animals hunted or elephant taming implements on the front wall of the house, simultaneously showcasing the economic condition of the family. Another unroofed platform, usually little lower in height, is annexed from the micha, which is called micha-dachoo. This platform is usually is used to sun paddy where a bucketful of water is always kept ready to wash and clean the feet before entering the house. Thus, a member coming home with a muddy feet will wash his feet in this platform. In such case, he will use the second front ladder to climb to the platform. If sufficient sunlight does not fall in this platform then another open un-roofed bamboo platform called adugu-micha is constructed to sun paddy.

The micha of the house is attached with the entrance door (sipere) that immediately leads to the corridor (chagoo), made to the right side of the house. The chagoo leads to the inner compartments that do not possess any door. These compartmented spaces are allotted to the married couples and girls to sleep. However, these partitioned portions are allotted to different family members of the family as per traditionally maintained order and scheme based on seniority of the members. Thus, the male head / parents along with the unmarried children in a nuclear family use the first room. Contrarily, the eldest son of a joint family is allotted with the first room and latter rooms are allotted as per the seniority. The girls of the house sleep in a separate room known as the jiyari kotha, meaning daughter’s room. Sometimes, the first room also possess a secondary fireplace for minor cooking in the winter season and the relatives as well as the respectable guests are entertained here which thus turns to a place of gossip. Among the Tengapania clan, the first room contains the altar Subechani or household god (Gharar Devata), which is known as the Subechani or Subachani room (Saikia:1974).

The rearmost room is the kitchen (niyama anch / mazia) that has two parts, partitioned with a wall known as the ghardeo ber (among the Bargayans) , which is viewed with certain sacredness and respect. The inner half (mazia / mazia shali) contains the main fireplace, known as dudepati on its middle. The fireplace is constructed with soil, held within a wooden frame, on the bamboo platform. A threelegged hearth called siyakati / mude is placed over the dudepati for cooking. Above the hearth, a three-tiered storage shelf (dhoa-chang) of sparsely woven bamboo splinter is constructed. The topmost tier of this shelf is known as lubeng / gim / ghim / gichong, middle one is called chachiagisha / lubeng / gimo, and the bottom one is called gicha / changoti. Another ledge called mirjibi laduchaw is constructed in the kitchen to keep utensils. The mazia contains a side door (pet duar) to the south that leads to an adjacent open platform called mazia micha-dachu / ji-michang / jimipale micha. This platform is used as scullery and to store water where a ladder is attached.

The other half of the kitchen is known as the Gira-girachiya or Demashi room or kotali, which is dinning cum elderly couple’s (Giragirachee) bedroom. However, this couple may alternately be allotted the middle room of the house as bedroom. This part contains a secondary fireplace known as tipai-shali, around which guests or family members will warm themselves in winter or will keep the pitchers of rice beer to turn wine tepid or prepares tea. Around this fireplace, the family members eat and drink but they take their seat according to order of seniority. The females of the house take food in the cooking area while the young boys can eat in both the places. The elder boys (bother-in-law) do not enter the cooking area if the sister in law is present there.

Apart from the residential house, the Deoris construct a compact and multiutility structure that contains the barn (bibo) on the bamboo platform. It is a tradition to construct the bibo in front of the residential house, at a distance from the main house. The only door of the bibo faces the main house. However, it is constructed little sideway from the residential house and the two houses never confront each other. Even the roofline of the two houses is placed at a gap and should not overlap. Part of the area below the platform is used as byre (machu gowali), if not constructed separately. Simultaneously, some of the area is used to store the hay (chageyan). Below the same roof and in front of the barn, they establish the husking peddle (dechigari) and loom on ground. The construction technique of the barn is similar to that of the residential house. However, the technique of wall construction differs in them. The platform and walls of the barn to a certain height are smeared with mud. They believe that the Goddess Laksmi (Minuchee) resides here.

2) Technique:

The construction of the Deori house starts with the construction of the platform of the house. Thus, they first embed the roof supporting as well platform-bearing posts (tal-khuta / tika-khuta / yadiga) in rows. Such a row supports first breadth-wise member of beam (darani / dabo). These two members were usually made of wood or bamboo, though concrete posts are nowadays preferred for permanence. Above the dabo, the lengthways bamboo called digh-darani / gargari is tied . Then another breadth-wise member of round or half split bamboo called gargari / chamja is placed above . Above this , there attach bamboo splinters (kami / lipere) called chamzha / aachaw longitudinally and secure firmly using kokila. Then, bamboo chuch (aachaw) is the added to complete the floor of platform.

After completion of the platform, roof construction work starts. The bamboo purlin are attached first, initially over the side rows followed by the middle row posts. The lateral two purlins are tied over with a bamboo beam or choti. Then above the purlin, there attach theka or kechi, (common rafter) that supports lengthwise purlin known as chiri which supports the roof of hedali type. Then the roof is covered with thatch using the common technique of roofing.

The walls of the house are woven on the ground with the bamboo splints or flattened bamboo. After weaving and tying, they are attached from exterior and tied to the posts. Contrarily, the granary walls are attached from inner side. The Deoris do not daub or colour the walls. Since the houses do not have any window, the light and air easily passes through the un-plastered bamboo walls.

3) Beliefs and Rituals Associated with House:

There is prevalent different folk beliefs among the Deoris in connection with house. They held the residential house with certain reverence like other tribes. Thus, after returning from a funereal ceremony, it is mandatory to take bath and heat the feet using a stone before entering the house. There is current certain taboos in connection with house. Thus the construction materials are selected carefully for there is prevalent certain taboos concerning the selection of material also. Thus, it is prohibited to use the wood of a tree died of lighting or fire. They do not start the construction of houses in the month of Puh, Magh, and Chot, or in the dark fortnight (Krishnapaksa), on Saturday, Tuesday, or on the day in which a family member died. Vulture is regarded as ominous by Deoris and if a vulture sits on the roof a house, they are to perform certain sacrifices. Entering of snakes into the house or climbing to the bamboo platform is also regarded ominous. Wednesday and Sunday are the successively the auspicious days for them (Goswsami:2015). Similarly, if a Muslim, Christian, or person of Kaibarta community climbs up into the platform, then they regard it as impurity.

The houses are traditionally sanctified on the first Wednesday of the Mugh and Bohag month. However, in the event of any impurity it is obligatory to sanctify immediately. The Bargayan clan arrange the worship of the Ghardeo / Ghar Kalika (house spirit) seasonally to purge the building. On previous afternoon of this worship, or prior to any major ritual, it is obligatory to arrange the purging ritual of Khin Peloa’. In the ritual of “Khin Peloa’, the Deodhai (family priest) takes a pitcher-full of water and put some raw rice, dregs of wine, and khin leaves and sprinkles this “Santi Pani’ (holy water) around the house with the khin leaves along circumambulating around the house thrice. Along with the house, the barn is also sanctified, but here the water is sprinkled once from the front. On the other hand, for the purpose of Ghardeo puja, a red rooster that starts crowning is necessary, which is tethered to the Ghardeo ber of kitchen using a small stake called chatka. Below the ridge of gable wall, there tether another hen and the Deodhai perform the ritual. After the ritual, both the birds are set free and use on next occasion. Among the Dibangiyas, similar sanctifying ritual called “Mad Baka Sakam’ is arranged, where the elderly village people are invited to perform the ritual and who are entertained with wine and chicken. The granary is also sanctified through this ritual. Every household of a village arrange this ritual to purify their houses.

If a person of other caste enters the house, then the house is consecrated with the ritual of Chhai-Bhanga. For the purpose, four Deodhais are invited and a family member required to kill a tender chicken through beating. Then the chicken is cooked and offered along with rice-beer, brewed specially for the purpose. Then the family members will confess their guilt and the Deudhais will bless them.

The Tengapaniya clan arranges the Subachani puja after the ritual of khin peloa inside the front altar-containing room. They sacrifice duck or chicken and offer the blood and head to God. Apart from sanctification, this puja is performed in order to get rid of from the evil spirits or ghosts (Saikia:1974:78).

4) House Warming Ceremony:

The Deori, especially the Bargayans observe certain rituals on house warming or on the eve of entering a newly constructed house. On that day, two pitchers, filled with water and a basket full of rice are kept below the mudhar khuta along with lighting an earthen lamp near. Then, nine ancestors (Na-Purush Devata) are offered pinda (ceremonial offering of food) at the backside of the house. In the night, the Dandai (traditional trance-dancer) goes into trance and sings. Simultaneously, he strikes the purlin of the house with a chopper (mitda), in order to extricate the evil forces and ghosts. The Dandai is offered with a black chicken to eat in that night.

5) Rituals and Beliefs Associated with the Barn:

The Deoris regard the barn with great reverence and therefore certain rituals and beliefs are prevalent around the barn. It is a custom that only the selected member of the family, known as Bharali, can enter the barn and extract the paddy sheaf. In case of a woman Bharali, only the woman who got married through proper rituals only is selected as a Bharali. On the eve of the first entry of the Bharali into the barn, a hen is sacrificed inside the barn. In the month of the Puh, it is prohibited to bring out paddy from the barn. In the event of the death of a family member, there wrap a white cloth on the barn door and kept so till the sanctification ceremony is held.

Barn is believed to be the abode of the Goddess Miruchi (Laksmi), and the Goddess is ceremonially invited on the occasion of Natun Bharal Loa or Lakhimi Adora (house warming ceremony of the barn) . This ceremony starts on the bank of a river and the womenfolk go there wearing new cloth. On the bank of the river, they establish two altars and offer banana and pounded rice powder. They take along them the fishing implement of jakoi, and immerge it to the water thrice and whatever thing enter and found in the jakoi, put them in a creel (khaloi) and bring them to home, singing hymns of Goddess Laksmi and sprinkling pounded rice powder.

After bringing the “Laksmi” in this way, there arrange the worship inside the barn with the sacrifice of five chickens. After this, the Bharali takes a bamboo basket, fills it with rice shook, and wrap it with a white cheleng cloth. Then the basket is brought to the kitchen and keeps below the terminal ridge post for a week. During the week, another cheleng cloth is wrapped on the door of the barn. During that week, no gift or alms especially rice, water, and fire is given. Thus, only after a week, threshing is allowed.

Another ritual, prevalent among the Bargaya clan, called Bharalar Puja or Lakhimi Puja is performed inside the barn on the occasion of first withdrawal of rice grain. The similar ritual, prevalent among the Dibongiya clan is known as MiruchiLiduba. Before the commencement of the ritual, a basket full of rice shook is extracted from the barn, after wrapping with cloth which is subsequently keeps near the Ghardeo wall. In this ritual, three divinities namely Kubegiya (Kuber), Emachi (a female Goddess), and Hetu-Tetu-Raja are propitiated with three chickens. For the purpose, there lay a plantain leaf over the rice shook and establish three altars laying the tora leaves. Then a reed (khagari) is bent on two points and the ends are pierced through the tara leaves, which is called dazumari. On those tora leaves, there put stem-tip of tanglati branch with three leaves. Then rice powder, salt, rice, betel nut, and burning wig are offered on these altars. Then the Deudhai solemnizes the sacrifice and the offers the chicken heads on the altars. On the platform or ground outside the barn, ritualistic offering is made to Goddess Basumati also. The offered chicken heads are taken out next day.

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